The “urban SDG”: an explainer


As Citiscope reported this week, urbanists around the world are cheering a recent decision by a United Nations working group to include a specific goal focused on cities in its draft “Sustainable Development Goals” for the world.  It’s a procedural victory but it could eventually have profound impacts on aid flows as well as the political standing of cities as players within national and international systems. Here’s an explainer on what’s going on.

What are the Sustainable Development Goals? This is a UN-sponsored effort to create a common set of development goals for the world’s people to reach by 2030. The idea is to get governments, aid organizations, foundations and NGOs on the same page about what problems most urgently need to be solved. The hope is that getting all these groups pointed in the same direction will produce greater impact on goals such as eradicating hunger and poverty.

The Sustainable Development Goals are a follow-on effort to the Millennium Development Goals for the 2000-2015 period.

What were the Millennium Development Goals? These goals were created through another UN-sponsored process back in 2000 for all the same reasons. Eight goals were agreed to, such as achieving universal primary education and reducing child mortality. (The complete list is here.) Supporters claim the MDGs have galvanized unprecedented efforts to meet the needs of the world’s poorest people; critics say there’s been very uneven progress on the goals by topic, country or world region.  (The International Monetary Fund website provides a detailed monitoring report.)

The 2015 expiration date of the Millennium Development Goals has led to much discussion lately about the “post-2015” agenda of what comes next. The Sustainable Development Goals are the answer.

Who is creating the Sustainable Development Goals? A high-level UN Open Working Group was established in January 2013 to craft a new set of goals through the year 2030. Seventy UN member states shared 30 seats on the committee (meaning most seats were shared by two or three countries — a so-called “troika” arrangement).  

At its final meeting July 19, the group unanimously approved a draft set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals to be taken up by the UN General Assembly. The full list of goals is here. 

The new list largely keeps the Millennium Development Goals intact while updating and expanding on some of them. For example, there are new goals related to water and sanitation, energy, climate change and inequality.

The UN General Assembly will continue SDG negotiations, culminating in a MDGs-SDGs Summit in September 2015.

What does the draft “urban” Sustainable Development Goal say? It pledges to “Make cities and human settlement inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” That goal is backed up by specific targets, such as eliminating slum-like conditions, reducing urban sprawl and ensuring universal access to safe and sustainable urban transit.  (See the full text of these targets here.

If the city goal makes it through to final ratification in September 2015, it will mark the UN’s strongest expression ever of the critical role of cities in the world’s future.

Who is pushing the urban goal?  Early on, there seemed to be minimal sentiment or support for a specific SDG focused on cities. Urbanists from all continents then mobilized a push to include a specific goal to address urban areas. They assembled research, built support among the world’s local governments for the idea, lobbied the working group and amassed a social media campaign using the hashtag #urbanSDG.  

Proponents pointed to the massive amounts of population growth expected in cities in the coming decades — close to three-quarters of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas by 2050. If the human condition is to improve, they argued, it’s essential that cities function well. More on how the supporters made their case is here; more on their arguments is here.) 

Who is opposed to the urban goal?  Working group representatives from a number of countries were initially skeptical of including a specific goal for cities. They argued that other goals, such as ending poverty or providing quality education, applied just as well to cities as to rural areas. Some also feared that including a goal explicitly targeted at urban areas would divert attention and international aid flows away from rural areas.

Skeptical delegations included Great Britain, Croatia, Korea and the United States, though all joined in the final unanimous committee vote on the final draft including the urban goal.

What would the urban goal mean for cities? Some of the impact is political. Despite the increasing importance of cities in so much of the world, cities often struggle to win the financial resources and legal authority to deal effectively with urban problems. The urban goal could spark conversations in some countries around decentralizing power and providing more taxing authority at city and regional levels.

The urban goal could also raise the profile of cities in the global dialogue, which is dominated (like the membership of the United Nations) by the interests of nation states.

What happens next? The complete set of proposed new goals is due for additional debate and refinement at the UN General Assembly starting later this year; final UN General Assembly ratification won’t occur until September 2015.  

It’s by no means assured that the urban goal or some of the other goals will survive. The draft includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals, compared with just eight Millennium Development Goals. Some have argued the list needs to be pared down.

In 2016, the UN will convene a major global conference on cities known as Habitat III. It will be the primary outlet for nation state governments to discuss urban issues at a moment when cities are primed for population growth by the billions over the coming decades.


A place for cities in the Sustainable Development Goals

Behind the push for an “urban SDG

The “urban SDG”: an explainer

Comparing the MDGs and the SDGs

On the record: What supporters of an “urban SDG” are saying

Join a conversation about the “urban SDG” on

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Christopher Swope is managing editor of Citiscope. Full bio

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